The Betty White of American Politics: Why Bernie’s Young Fans Love Him

Why his young fans like him

This illustration can only be used with the Nora Caplan-Bricker piece that originally ran in the 6/20/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
Ryan Inzana
Nora Caplan-Bricker
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Nora Caplan-Bricker
June 19, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

Brendan Eprile re­mem­bers the first time he saw Bernie Sanders on TV. Eprile was an 8-year-old grow­ing up in Ver­mont, and he re­calls “be­ing amazed, be­cause I un­der­stood what he was talk­ing about, un­like all the oth­er politi­cians.” Sanders was on his soap­box about Ir­aq — or maybe it was eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity? In any case, the fam­ously blunt in­de­pend­ent from Bur­l­ing­ton had him riv­eted. Jo­nah Ra­gir has a sim­il­ar re­col­lec­tion. When he was young, he says, his grand­moth­er was watch­ing Sanders on C-SPAN in her Cali­for­nia liv­ing room. “I asked my grandma who he was, be­cause he didn’t sound like the oth­er guys who were speak­ing,” Ra­gir says. “He wasn’t ‘bor­ing’ and he wasn’t ‘ly­ing,’ were the words I used as a little kid.”

When Sanders an­nounced in late April that he was run­ning for pres­id­ent, Eprile, now a rising ju­ni­or at Ober­lin Col­lege, and Ra­gir, who at­tends Santa Mon­ica Col­lege, were among the stu­dents who con­tac­ted his cam­paign to vo­lun­teer. (As of early June, Bernie 2016 told me it had heard from schools in al­most every state.) As the most lib­er­al can­did­ate in the race, Sanders is, in many ways, the nat­ur­al can­did­ate of the cam­pus left. He is also, however, a no­tori­ously tetchy sep­tua­gen­ari­an. How, I wondered, do the young­est gen­er­a­tion of Bernie sup­port­ers re­late to him? What ex­actly is driv­ing their en­thu­si­asm for this throw­back product of the 1960s?

Cer­tainly, his po­s­i­tions on the is­sues are part of the equa­tion. Sanders, like most left-wing stu­dents, is an­ti­war, anti-money-in-polit­ics — and anti-stu­dent-loan-debt, which he has pro­posed to cur­tail by mak­ing col­lege free. “As a per­son in his 70s, he’s more in tune with our gen­er­a­tion’s plight than I would ar­gue Hil­lary Clin­ton is, and even Mar­tin O’Mal­ley at this point, and for sure the right wing,” says Adam Schwartz, a stu­dent at the Uni­versity of Wis­con­sin, Madis­on. They like him on so­cial is­sues as well — even though Sanders re­gards those as very sec­ond­ary to his eco­nom­ic mes­sage. One stu­dent after an­oth­er noted Sanders’s long-stand­ing sup­port of mar­riage equal­ity as com­pared with Hil­lary Clin­ton’s slow “evol­u­tion.” Plus, his car­bon-tax pro­pos­al has en­deared him to the en­vir­on­ment­al crowd.

Sanders is also the kind of politi­cian stu­dents tend to em­brace be­cause they see him as above polit­ics. “He’s not play­ing the role of a politi­cian, but of a per­son who wants to do good,” says Eliza­beth Lee of Middle­bury Col­lege. Where most pols “in­tro­duce le­gis­la­tion just to get the brownie points,” says Schwartz, Sanders “stands by it, and then he floats it re­peatedly.” Nikolaus Hofer, a stu­dent at Prin­ceton Uni­versity, vo­lun­teered for Barack Obama in 2012 and New Jer­sey Sen­at­or Cory Book­er in 2013 — but says he feels let down by both former idols. “The prob­lem was, they’re politi­cians,” he ex­plains. “They’re trad­ing things for each oth­er, bal­an­cing one thing against an­oth­er.” Sanders, he says, is “not try­ing to swim through all this muck — he’s on a surf­board cruis­ing right over it. I love the guy.”

Sanders on a surf­board? “I love the guy”? It wasn’t just Hofer: In talk­ing to Sanders’s young sup­port­ers, it be­came clear that their en­thu­si­asm for him ex­ten­ded well bey­ond his po­s­i­tions. The stu­dents who sup­port him don’t just agree with him: They seem to think that he, per­son­ally, is kind of awe­some.

The com­par­is­on between Sanders and Obama is, it turns out, in­struct­ive. Sanders is in most sig­ni­fic­ant ways the op­pos­ite of the can­did­ate young pro­gress­ives fell for eight years ago. It’s true that Obama, like Sanders today, ran in 2008 as a kind of anti-politi­cian, but he was non­ethe­less the con­sum­mate mod­ern can­did­ate: young, pol­ished, so­cial-me­dia-ready. Sanders, mean­while, is dour, pess­im­ist­ic, and not the kind of guy one ex­pects to share a laugh with — un­less maybe it’s over the words “hope and change.” Wit­tingly or not, Sanders seems to be join­ing a small cadre of oth­er no-bull­shit old people — think Betty White or Chuck Grass­ley — whose per­ceived lack of guile res­on­ates with di­git­al nat­ives. He’s “dis­arm­ingly straight­for­ward,” says Frank Fritz, a stu­dent at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity. “He’s not try­ing to win the game of who acts the most pres­id­en­tial or has the best me­dia team. He’s good on so­cial me­dia be­cause he’s hon­est about what he thinks.”

Sanders’s groom­ing habits are a key part of his charm. One stu­dent after an­oth­er praised his white hair, which is in­fam­ous for lift­ing off his head in struck-by-light­ning-level dis­ar­ray. A guy that un­con­cerned with sur­faces, the stu­dents ar­gue, must be worthy of their trust. He “doesn’t care about his im­age,” says Hofer; he is “clearly not con­cerned about keep­ing up an ap­peal.” Sanders might be a 73-year-old man, “but at the end of the day, it seems he’s the most youth­ful can­did­ate out there,” Hofer says. “That he’s un­kempt is a draw for people,” says Ra­gir. “I know in my life — I’m 21 — I’ve seen Clin­ton, Bush, Obama. These are people who just look per­fect. Everything about them is per­fect. And Bernie is this real per­son.” He “comes off a little grungy,” says Lee. “It works for him.”

It even seems to help that Sanders is so un­likely to make it to the Oval Of­fice. “You know, our gen­er­a­tion is sort of the hip­ster gen­er­a­tion, and the school I go to, people are very in­to not be­ing main­stream,” says Eprile. “I think, hon­estly, a lot of people don’t think he’s go­ing to win and like that in a weird way. “… He’s the edgy can­did­ate.” The sen­at­or, con­curs Uni­versity of Texas of the Per­mi­an Basin gradu­ate Timothy McDaniel, “is kind of re­bel­li­ous.” Like a fixed-gear bike or a col­lec­tion of vinyl, Sanders is trend­ily ana­log and im­prac­tic­al. Says Eprile: “I do hear a lot of people say, ‘Oh, he’s so cool.‘“Š”

What We're Following See More »
Congress Heads Back to Work to End Shutdown
15 hours ago

"The Senate was expected to be back in session at noon, while House lawmakers were told to return to work for a 9 a.m. session. Mr. Trump on Friday had canceled plans to travel to his private resort on Palm Beach, Fla., where a celebration had been planned for Saturday to celebrate the anniversary of his first year in office."

Government Shutdown Begins, as Senate Balks at Stopgap
17 hours ago

"A stopgap spending bill stalled in the Senate Friday night, leading to a government shutdown for the first time since 2013. The continuing resolution funding agencies expired at midnight, and lawmakers were unable to spell out any path forward to keep government open. The Senate on Friday night failed to reach cloture on a four-week spending bill the House had already approved."

Mueller’s Team Scrutinizing Russian Embassy Transactions
2 days ago
FBI Investigating Potential Russian Donations to NRA
2 days ago

"The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency." Investigators have focused on Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank "who is known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA." The solicitation or use of foreign funds is illegal in U.S. elections under the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) by either lobbying groups or political campaigns. The NRA reported spending a record $55 million on the 2016 elections.

Mueller Investigation Leads to Hundreds of New FARA Filings
2 days ago

"Hundreds of new and supplemental FARA filings by U.S. lobbyists and public relations firms" have been submitted "since Special Counsel Mueller charged two Trump aides with failing to disclose their lobbying work on behalf of foreign countries. The number of first-time filings ... rose 50 percent to 102 between 2016 and 2017, an NBC News analysis found. The number of supplemental filings, which include details about campaign donations, meetings and phone calls more than doubled from 618 to 1,244 last year as lobbyists scrambled to avoid the same fate as some of Trump's associates and their business partners."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.